Book Reviews

On the Reliability of the Old Testament

Kenneth A. Kitchen Grand Rapids 2006-06-09

Kitchen may be the preeminent Old Testament apologist of the past one hundred years. Not since the days of Robert Dick Wilson, William Henry Green, and Oswald T. Allis has there been a scholar as well equipped and as ready to take up arms in defense of the historicity and general reliability of the Old Testament record. In addition to numerous articles in support of such matters Kitchen authored the well-known handbooks Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: InterVarsity, 1966) and The Bible in Its World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977), among others. And all this by an Egyptologist best known outside evangelical circles for his authoritative works in that discipline such as The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100–650 B.C.) (Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips, 1973) and Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt (Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips, 1983).

The present work, though technically not a history of Israel, is concerned primarily to reestablish the Old Testament as a reliable record of that history in the face of postmodern attempts to rob it of any semblance of historical credibility. In his response to these approaches Kitchen regularly makes the transition from apologist to polemicist, a move not surprising to readers familiar with his other works. This may vitiate the effectiveness of his arguments among the targets of his frequently withering attacks, but they are not likely to read his work anyway for the very reason he suggests, namely, a closed-system a priorism that refuses to examine any evidence outside their own predetermined boundaries. Others, however, will read Kitchen with appreciation, perhaps even glee, where he “lets ’em have it” or “gives ’em what they deserve.” This is not likely to be productive if the intention is to understand opposing positions and know how to respond to those deemed intellectually and theologically deficient.

Kitchen’s method seems at first to be wrong-headed because he begins at the end and ends at the beginning. That is, he traces the history of the postexilic period first and then works his way back to the very beginning, what he calls “Back to Methusaleh—and Well Beyond.” The rationale for this, however, is quite clear and sensible, for Kitchen wants to begin with an era best documented by extrabiblical data and then, having made a strong case for the Old Testament’s reliability there, to move to earlier times where such evidence is increasingly rare. The point is that if late periods of history can be shown to be corroborated by unimpeachable secular sources, it follows a fortiori that earlier ones should at least be given presumptive benefit of the doubt.

On the whole, Kitchen makes a good case for his thesis, but sometimes he does so at the expense of self-consistency or even by fudging on matters of historical event, especially where the supernatural is involved. Speaking of the death of Sennacherib’s army, for example, Kitchen explains the “visitation that brought sudden death to a large part of the Assyrian force,” as “food poisoning or whatever?” (p. 41). There is no word here of direct divine intervention. More serious, however, is his attempt to support a late date for the Exodus—a position for which he is well known—in light of evidence to the contrary. He dismisses Bryant Wood’s compelling arguments for an early fourteenth-century destruction of Jericho by simply asserting that P. Bienkowski “corrected” Wood, but Kitchen does not say how (p. 544 n. 89). He then ignores the three-hundred-year period from the beginning of the Conquest to the judgeship of Jephthah by deriding Jephthah as “a roughneck, an outcast” whose words are “nothing more than a brave but ignorant man’s bold bluster in favor of his people” (p. 209). Kitchen has no grounds for such an assertion, but he must in some way rid himself of the three hundred years that anchor the Conquest (and hence the Exodus) in the late fifteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Resort to begging the question in this way does not help his case.

At another point Kitchen admits that Moses could not (or did not) return to Egypt from Midian until a new king reigned (p. 296). He says nothing, however, about the fact that the king whose death cleared the way for Moses’ return had to have reigned for at least forty years according to clear biblical testimony (Exod. 2:23; cf. 4:19; 7:7). That being the case, Ramesses II, Kitchen’s pharaoh of the Exodus, is disqualified since only he reigned that long in the nineteenth dynasty and therefore his successor would have been the Exodus king. But that was Merenptah, whose reign commenced after 1214 B.C. and who in his fifth year already mentioned Israel in a famous monument found at Thebes. The Exodus could hardly have occurred in his reign! This leaves only Amenhotep II (ca. 1427–1400) of Dynasty 18 as the pharaoh of the Exodus, for only he followed a king (Thutmose III) who reigned for at least forty years. The only way to discount this evidence is to deny the forty-year duration of Moses’ Midianite sojourn and thus to violate Kitchen’s own general method of taking the biblical historical data at face value.

This said, the fact remains that Kitchen has left all students committed to biblical factuality greatly in his debt. The erudition of this work is breathtaking, the scope of its treatment most impressive, and the cogency of the case as a whole most convincing. Serious students cannot and must not ignore it.

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Eugene H. Merrill
Eugene H. Merrill is a former faculty member of DTS. Dr. Merrill has been heavily involved in international Christian ministry in Europe, Asia, and the Near East. As a scholar Dr. Merrill regularly contributes to leading journals, periodicals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries. Academia runs in his family as his wife, Janet, holds a doctorate in counselor education from Columbia University and his daughter, Sonya, earned a Ph.D. in medical ethics from the University of London and an M.D. from Harvard University.
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